I’m in Texas for a conference, and I’m not ashamed to say,I was not looking forward to coming here. Texas, epitomizes for me, everything wrong with America most recently highlighted by their governor, who had once talked about succession, but because he now may have presidential aspirations, engaged the National Guard at the border so that he could look more presidential. How you can at one point want to detach from the United States, and at another use it, is obnoxious to me. But, here I am in Texas, and I thought I’d jot down some of my experiences.
Where I am, cabs are run by independent contractors, so I’m sure their business success is based on building a happy customer base. The driver gave me her card, with instructions for how to get her for my return to the airport. In so many ways, she demonstrated awesome customer service. And then there was this conversation she instigated about cab drivers. I’m not even sure how the topic came up. Maybe it was part of her strategy to make sure I’d call her for my return trip. But all of a sudden it seemed, she is telling me about the cab business struggling and being harmed because, and these are her words, “they brought in a bunch of Somalis and they are ruining the business.” And then in fairly graphic detail she explained to me how these Somali drivers smell because they are dirty. I sifted into listening mode. I was quite intrigued. What made this woman think I wanted or needed to know this information? Her sharing included a story about a woman at the airport who had entered and exited two cabs before getting into hers, because of how bad the other two had smelled.
“I’m not racist,” she exclaimed, and to support that, she told me about how one of her black friends ( I have no idea if she has one or many) calls these Somalis, animals. Animals! I couldn’t believe this word came out of her mouth! And of course, if a black person feels this way, it can’t be racism, right?
I work in a multicultural environment with faculty, coworkers and students coming from many countries across the planet, and I’m aware that different cultures have different ideas about hygiene and cleanliness. But, I think this goes deeper than merely having different cultural practices. Perhaps there is a tinge of Nationalism in this too, as even female Europeans can be looked down upon for not shaving their legs, but the use of the term animal, takes the insults to a far deeper level than simple disgust.
My partner is also halfway around the globe as I write this, visiting a third world country. He knew before leaving, that he would be prohibited from bathing for much of his stay, since water is scarce. Hygiene and habits are a complex mixture of culture, learned behavior, and necessity.
And I have no idea how true any of this is. Do Somali people smell? Why am I even thinking about this? And why did she tell me this and bring me, even peripherally, into her world and her prejudices? A simple Google search suggests that Somalia is a water scarce country, and in every way different from our own. My biggest question is why did she expect me to be sympathetic to her sharing and agreeable to these sentiments? Because of my skin color? Because I am an American? And how much is this prejudice really one about religion, as Somalia is a predominately Muslim country. Or are all of these things reasons why the discussed Somali cab drivers become othered? Are these foreigners any different from the ones coming across our border to the South? Does this Texan or other Texans draw these lines about acceptable-ness against all foreigners?
Cab driving is a hospitality industry. Are these drivers a problem? Who brought them here, and why? How are foreigners who come to the United States culturally trained and how do they learn what is culturally acceptable?
At the resort hosting the conference I’m attending, there is a water park, with a huge “lazy river” feature, holding thousands of gallons of water. I think about all of these things as I float, carried by the lazy current, and I wonder if I should have confronted the driver more. What I did do was comment that cultural ideas about hygiene vary across the globe. Was that enough? I didn’t push it, but I did know I wouldn’t be calling her for my return trip. As I’m thinking through this blog post, lazily floating in the water, I also hear two Texan men talking about how much money they are making trading futures, and how God told him, in three years, one of them would be rich. Water, hygiene, and perspective.